Jonathan Lowe, 1950-2014

One of the leading philosophers of his generation has died

January 30, 2014

Source: Tuomas E. Tahko

Jonathan Lowe was born in Dover on 24 March 1950 and went to the University of Cambridge to read natural sciences in 1968 but soon decided to study history instead. After gaining a first in 1971, he switched discipline again and went to the University of Oxford for a BPhil (1974) and then a DPhil in philosophy (1975). After a period at the University of Reading, in 1980 he moved to Durham University for the rest of his career, where he rose through the ranks to become senior lecturer (1990), reader (1992) and eventually professor of philosophy (1995).

Exceptionally prolific and wide-ranging in his interests, Professor Lowe kept returning to the deepest philosophical problem of all, namely the fundamental structure of reality. Although metaphysics was rooted in science and most people’s common-sense assumptions, he believed that it also had to go well beyond them and demanded the most intense form of disciplined thinking.

Some of the core principles are set out in Professor Lowe’s celebrated overview, The Possibility of Metaphysics: Substance, Identity, and Time (1998), which aims to “restore metaphysics to a central position in philosophy as the most fundamental form of rational inquiry, with its own distinctive methods and criteria of validation. In my view, all other forms of inquiry rest on metaphysical presuppositions – thus making metaphysics unavoidable – so that we should at least endeavour to do metaphysics with our eyes open, rather than allowing it to exert its influence on us at the level of uncritical assumptions.” Similarly ambitious and influential was The Four-Category Ontology: A Metaphysical Foundation for Natural Science (2006).

Matthew Ratcliffe, professor of philosophy at Durham, remembered Professor Lowe as “an exceptionally kind, caring and generous person” who was notably supportive of his students, colleagues and even “the wider philosophical community”: “Philosophers from all over the world came to depend on him as a mentor and referee, and he would spend many hours most weeks writing carefully crafted letters of support…

“He was always a keen participant in research events, where he exercised his astonishingly refined critical skills and offered numerous insightful comments, without ever being dismissive. Even with his eminence in the profession and the many associated demands on his time, he insisted on doing his fair share (and usually more than his fair share) of administrative and teaching work.”

Professor Lowe died on 5 January after several months of illness. He is survived by his wife Susan, a daughter and a son.

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